MISSOULA – University of Montana students recently completed a 1.7-mile trail restoration project at Big Sky Park, ensuring many more years of recreational use for the community.

Joe Jansen and Grader
Joe Janssen, left, director of the Heavy Equipment Operation Program at Missoula College, guides a student during the final phases of trail reconstruction.(UM Photo by Suzanne Downing.)

The park, located north of Big Sky High School, is the biggest park in the county at 154 acres. And the director of the Missoula College Heavy Equipment Operation Program, Joe Janssen, said it’s just the type of classroom his students need.

“This is as close to the real world as it gets,” said Janssen, who is in his second year of instruction at the college after a 30-year career operating heavy equipment.

The Heavy Equipment Operation Program originally helped create the natural-surface trail along the perimeter of the park in 1999. But with the frequent clatter of horse hooves, runners and dog walkers, the wide dirt trail deteriorated over the years.

The Big Sky Stewardship Committee, in partnership with the Missoula County Parks, Trails and Open Lands Program, spent the past five years seeking funding, as well as affordable labor.

“Fixing a trail of this size is very complex and expensive,” said Natalie Harrington, vice president of the Big Sky Stewardship Committee.

After Harrington received local bids for the trail project that exceeded the $49,000 budget, Harrington reached out to Missoula College. With revenue from leased cell towers within Big Sky Park, the project was funded in full.

Tyler Zavala
Tyler Zavala, 21, was involved in each phase of the Big Sky Park trail restoration project as a student in Missoula College’s Heavy Equipment Operation Program. (UM Photo by

Students like Tyler Zavala, 21, were involved in each phase of the project, from stripping topsoil and vegetation to hauling the gravel on-site.

“It’s so nice to get out of the four walls of the classroom,” Zavala said, “and there are so many machines I’ve never operated.”

The students learned how to use surveying equipment and operated a variety of machines, including graders, front-end loaders, dump trucks, skid steers and rollers.

“The everyday tasks that came with the trail project are exactly what students will encounter in the workforce,” Janssen said. “These students worked hard.”

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